Walter Brueggemann: Quarantine Fatigue or Sabbath Rest: A Reflection on Psalm 31

Most of us are unthinkingly committed to a certain understanding of time that we might call “Promethean.” That is, we have come to regard time as something to fill, master, control, and plan out with an aim of achievement, accomplishment, success, and perhaps money-making (that is not the same as “making a living”). When we live in “Promethean time” it turns out that “sheltering” under house arrest is enormously frustrating. No doubt part of the urgency to “re-open” our public life is an urge to return to the demands and possibilities of Promethean time.

In shelter we find ourselves frustrated,

-- because there is not much to accomplish within the limited sphere of our household;

-- because there is not much to achieve in an environment that is non-competitive (except for an occasional board game!)

-- because there is not much to possess when we already have within our reach everything with no more territory to conquer.

The restraints imposed upon us by sheltering resist most of our Promethean agenda; we become rest-less, that is, unable to enter into restorative rest.

Psalm 31 bears witness to another way of time that we might call Covenantal time:

My times are in your hand (v. 15)

At the center of Covenantal time is Sabbath rest toward which our entire week moves. We are noticing Sabbath rest all around us:

-- The atmosphere is getting Sabbath from our overwhelming pollution;

-- Our roads are getting Sabbath from the enormous number of accidents that has become routine;

-- Our children are getting Sabbath from the many illnesses that are passed around at school.

Covenantal time is marked by:

-- freedom from burden and the insatiable need to perform and produce, so that we can center on being and not doing.

-- confident peaceableness unlike the continual pressure of Promethean time. . . whether we have done enough or produced enough or possessed enough yet. For good reason Jesus posed the question: “Which of you, by your anxiety, can add to your life even a millisecond?”

-- a capacity for othering, whereby we may attend to the other and even the vulnerable other, because I do need to be preoccupied with myself, my gains, and my performance.

-- fidelity, so that the next line in the Psalm sounds Israel’s best word for fidelity: Let your face shine upon your servant; save me in your steadfast love. (v. 16)

It requires little imagination to see that these markings of Covenantal time—freedom, confident peaceableness, capacity for othering, and fidelity—have no place in Promethean time.

It is the task and glory of the church to inhabit and to bear witness to Covenantal time that frontally contradicts the Promethean time by which most of us reckon our days. The church does that by slo-time liturgy (even if on-line for now), by serious engagement with the vulnerable, by the wonder of baptism whereby we are named persons and not “data,” and by the great festival of abundance in the Eucharist that contradicts the passionate scarcity of Promethean time, as in “I don’t have enough time!”

The Psalm boldly anticipates the affirmation of the Heidelberg Catechism, that we belong “not to ourselves, but to our faithful savior Jesus Christ.” It does so of course in the confident language of Israel in the well-known prayer of verse 5:

Into your hand I commit my spirit.

(This is the same reliable hand of God acknowledged in verse 15). On the lips of Jesus this turned out to be an appropriate prayer when he was about to be executed as an enemy of the state (Luke 23:46). Jesus was able to utter this prayer because he knew and trusted the second half of the verse of the Psalm:

You have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God.

Indeed, this is a good prayer for our lips at the hour of our death as well. We can gladly entrust ourselves to the goodness of God in the awareness that we are indeed penultimate to the gracious self of God. But beyond the lips of Jesus at his death or our lips at our death, this prayer from the Psalm is surely a good prayer every day in which we commend ourselves over to God. This prayer is a ready decision to live in Covenantal time and a readiness to resist the demands of Promethean time. The trick will be to continue attention to Covenantal time when we are no longer in shelter. At our best, you may watch us as we slow our motors down to a pace of gratitude.

Used with permission. Originally posted on Church Anew, a ministry of St. Andrew Lutheran Church in Eden Prairie, MN.